Reviewer: Dave Smith
Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional singing (Sufism itself represents mysticism within Islam) popular in parts of Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that was mainly popularised among Western audiences by the great Nusret Fateh Ali Khan, who, as well as performing at Womad, also recorded for Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label.
Qawwali singing is generally a family affair passed on through the generations, and after Nusret Fateh Ali Khan died in 1997 (this tour marks the 20th anniversary of his death, as well as the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the formation of Pakistan), his position was taken on by his nephews Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan.
The music of qawwali was originally formed in 13th-century India and comprises a fusion of Indian, Persian, Turkish and Arabic music traditions, with the songs mainly being ones of devotion to Allah, Muhammad, Imam Ali and other Sufi saints and so on.
If all that sounds like it’s going to add up to something at best worthy but slightly dull, think again. Whether Rizwan-Muazzam represents ‘Qawwali Clash’ as one commentator (perhaps not entirely seriously) mooted is, at the very least, up for serious debate. These are not three-minute bursts of punkish anger, rather they are highly complex, prog rock length epics – the complete performance, which lasts the best part of two and a half hours (including a brief interval), is made up of just seven songs.
It is, however, an intense, almost otherworldly affair. Qawwali uses repetition and build-ups in volume to create a truly mystical and trancelike experience. That makes it not only very listenable but also, in the right circumstances, at times even danceable.
The ‘band’ is made up of the two lead singers, Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan, together with a couple of harmonium players/singers, four more backing singers (who also generate the rhythm with hand claps) and a tabla player. Muazzam Ali Khan is undoubtedly the star of the show, using his voice almost like a virtuoso instrumentalist, interplaying with his brother, the other singers and the musicians. He manages to demonstrate at different times the soul and expression of James Brown, a set of lungs that could earn him a guest slot on a Led Zeppelin reunion were Robert Plant otherwise engaged, and even some freeform scat that could find him a home in a jazz club.
But it’s how it all fits together that makes it so impressive. From the opener Allah Hoo, one of Nusret Fateh Ali Khan’s signature qawwalis, to the final number, Dama Dam Mast (which, to return to a previous theme, even contains that staple of prog rock gigs, a drum solo), there’s very little let up. If your only experience of religious music is Church of England hymn singing, you may not be ready for the overwhelming act of devotion that is qawwali.
Certainly not likely to be to the taste of every Western ear, but it’s hard to dispute the quality of the musicianship and the singing, the passion with which it is performed or the intensity of the sound produced.
Reviewed on 30 March 2017 | Image: Contributed